The Battle of Midway occurred between June 4th and June 7th, 1942 approximately six months after the surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and only one month after the Battle of Coral Sea. During the battle, the U.S. Navy would achieve a decisive victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy resulting in irreparable damage to the Japanese Navy. Midway would ultimately be considered one of the most decisive victories in the modern history of naval warfare when American aircraft from the USS Hornet, USS Yorktown, and USS Enterprise would attack and sink a total of four Japanese aircraft carriers. The Battle of Midway would result in a major turning point of WW2 in the Pacific Theater.
Battle of Midway Background
During May of 1942, Imperial Japanese Navy Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto wanted to draw what was left of the United States Pacific Fleet into a head-to-head battle in order to destroy the remainder of the fleet. In order to achieve these aims, the admiral planned to invade Midway Island so that he would have a base to attack Hawaii. Through the use of decrypted Japanese radio signals, United States Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz was able to position navy forces to counter the planned Japanese offensive.
Battle of Midway Commanders
United States Navy
Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet
Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, Task Force 17
Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, Task Force 16
Imperial Japanese Navy
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief, Combined Fleet Japan
Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, First Air Fleet, Japan
Admiral Yamamoto’s Plan for the Battle of Midway
After the Japanese strategic defeat at the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 4th-May 8th, 1942, Admiral Yamamoto created a plan to draw the remainder of the U.S. fleet into a decisive battle. In order to achieve these goals, the admiral made a plan to invade Midway island that is located approximately 1,300 miles northwest of Hawaii. Since Midway was a cornerstone to the American’s defense, Admiral Yamamoto realized that the U.S. Navy would send the carriers to defend the island. At the time of his plan, Yamamoto believed the United States only had two operational aircraft carriers. As a result, he sailed to battle with four aircraft carriers, numerous battleships, and cruisers.
Admiral Nimitz’s Plan for the Battle of Midway
At headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Admiral Nimitz’s cryptanalysts who were led by LCDR Joseph Rochefort made him aware of the pending attack by the Japanese against Midway. Since LCDR Rochefort’s team had broken the JN-25 naval code, he was able to provide the Japanese tactical plan to Nimitz. In order to counter the threat, Nimitz deployed Rear Admiral Spruance with aircraft carriers Midway, Hornet, and Enterprise to meet the Japanese. Two days after the departure of the task force, Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher followed the task force on the USS Yorktown which had been repaired after action seen at Coral Sea.
Battle of Midway Summary Video
Battle of Midway Summary
Early on June 4th, 1942 (0430), Japanese Vice Admiral Nagumo would launch 108 aircraft to attack Midway island. He also launched seven scout planes to attempt to locate the U.S. fleet. During the initial attack, the Japanese aircraft were able to inflict significant damage on the island’s installations. During the attack wave’s return to the carriers, the strike leaders recommended to the admiral that he conduct a second attack against the island. As a result, Admiral Nagumo would order the reserve aircraft loaded with torpedoes to be re-loaded with bombs. Once this process commenced, the Imperial Navy scout planes reported a sighting of the United States fleet.
Once Admiral Nagumo received the news of the American fleet’s arrival, Admiral Nagumo reversed his rearmament order of the fleet. Due to this reversal, the Japanese aircraft carriers had a large amount of torpedoes, bombs, and fuel lines on deck as the aircrew rushed to fulfill their new orders. At the same time, the first American planes arrived over the Japanese carriers. The TBD Devastator torpedo bombers from VT-8 (USS Hornet) and VT-6 (USS Enterprise) started to attack the Japanese formation. The first wave of American bombers would not have much success and see numerous casualties.
American Dive Bombers Find Success at Midway
Even though the initial attack on the Japanese carriers by VT-6 and VT-8 did not result in any damage inflicted on the Imperial Fleet, this attack coupled with the arrival with the arrival of VT-3 resulted in pulling the Japanese combat air patrol out of position. As a result, the Japanese fleet was left vulnerable. Then, at 10:22 am local time, U.S. SBD Dauntless dive bombers attacked from the south west and north east and started sinking numerous ships in the Japanese fleet.
In under six minutes time, the majority of the Imperial fleet was sunk or sinking. To counter the strike, Japanese aircraft launched from the carrier, Hiryu and disabled the American carrier, Yorktown. Later in the same day, U.S. dive bombers would ultimately locate the Hiryu and sank the carrier.
Aftermath of the Battle of Midway
During the evening of June 4th, 2012, both the Americans and Japanese pulled back to plan their next moves in the battle. As of 0255 local time that night, Admiral Yamamoto ordered the Imperial fleet to return to base. During the subsequent days of the battle, U.S. aircraft would sink Japanese cruiser, Mikuma and Japanese submarine, I-168 would sink the USS Yorktown. As a result of the Imperial Navy defeat at Midway, their carrier fleet and loss of valuable air crews would mark the end of major Japanese offensive operations in the Pacific Theater of World War 2. Later that year, United States Marines would make a landing in Guadalcanal and start their now famous island hoping campaign in WW2.
Casualties During the Battle of Midway
USS Yorktown (Aircraft Carrier)
USS Hammann (destroyer)
Imperial Japanese Navy
Kaga (Aircraft Carrier)
Hiryu (Aircraft Carrier)
Soryu (Aircraft Carrier)
Mikuma (Heavy Cruiser)
Battle of Midway Facts
* Note: The following Battle of Midway Facts are published by the United States Navy as “POD” or “Plan of the Day” Notes for use on active duty ships in today’s navy! Please see the references at the bottom of this article for additional information.
CAPT James W. Steele, on ADM Chester W. Nimitz’s staff, noted in the CINCPAC War Diary at the end of the day on 3 June 1942: “The whole course of the Pacific War may hinge on the developments of the next two or three days…”
On the night of 3 June 1942, CAPT Cyril T. Simard, CO of NAS Midway, told LCDR John Ford, USNR, famed Hollywood motion picture director called to the colors, that Midway expected to be attacked the next day. Used to “reporting, taking battle scenes and mob scenes and notice[ing] every detail,” Ford believed “that’s why I probably would notice a lot more than the layman” and led to his being tapped to being stationed atop the power house to report the size and strength of the incoming Japanese formations. The footage obtained by Ford and PhoM2c John A. MacKenzie, his assistant, during the battle on 4 June would be utilized in the documentary, “The Battle of Midway,” that won an Academy Award.
ENS Milton C. Tootle, IV, USNR, the tall, athletic son of a St. Louis, Missouri, banker, one of the last pilots to launch from Yorktown (CV-5) into a growing volume of antiaircraft fire to intercept rapidly approaching torpedo-carrying Nakajima B5N2 Type 97s from the Japanese carrier Hiryu, latched on to one Type 97 no more than a mile from the ship. Opening fire at short range, he saw his tracers hitting home, but soon noticed an increasing amount of smoke in his own cockpit. Having been hit by friendly fire, Tootle abandoned his pursuit of the Nakajima and climbed to 1,500 feet. He bailed out of the burning Wildcat; destroyer Anderson (DD-411) rescued him shortly thereafter in the wake of his first, eventful, aerial combat experience.
After running a gauntlet of the Japanese combat air patrol that had splashed the other five planes of the Midway-based VT-8 detachment and badly shot up his own Grumman TBF-1 Avenger, ENS Albert K. “Bert” Earnest, USNR, fired his torpedo at what looked like a light cruiser. With his gunner, Sea1c Jay D. Manning, dead and RM3c Harry H. Ferrier, his radioman, unconscious, his hydraulic system smashed and his elevator wires shot away, his bomb bay doors hanging open, and his compass inoperative, Earnest nursed the crippled plane back, homing in on a pillar of smoke from the burning oil tanks at Midway. He was awarded one Navy Cross for carrying out his attack; a second for bringing the plane back so that it could be studied after its baptism of fire.
With the Japanese attack on Midway over, the motor torpedo boats of MTBRON 1 returned to Sand Island. Although warned that the whole area was “extremely dangerous,” LT Clinton McKellar, Jr., CO of MTBRON 1, and MM2c R. H. Lowell, S2c J. B. Rodgers, and F3c V.J. Miastowski cut their way through barbed wire and gingerly made their way through a minefield to organize fire-fighting parties at the fuel oil dump.
LCDR Eugene E. Lindsey, CO of VT-6, made a bad landing when the Enterprise (CV-6) Air Group returned to the ship on 28 May 1942. Fortunately, the destroyer Monaghan (DD-354) rescued Lindsey and his crew. Lindsey refused to let the injuries he sustained in the crash, however, keep him from leading his squadron into battle. He perished at the head of Torpedo Six on the morning of 4 June 1942.
Although LCDR William H. Brockman, Jr., CO of submarine Nautilus (SS-168), had been given command of the boat without the usual PCO training, he foresightedly ordered his radiomen to monitor the aircraft search frequency in advance of the time in the operations orders. Thus prepared ahead of time, Nautilus intercepted the contact report that told of the enemy’s proximity. Nautilus would find herself in the middle of the Japanese carrier force, and cause such consternation that the destroyer Arashi was detached to drive her off or sink her. Arashi’s haste to rejoin the main Japanese force attracted the attention of LCDR C. Wade McClusky, Commander, Enterprise Air Group, the former CO of VF-6, who decided to follow the enemy ship when he had not found the Japanese where expected. McClusky’s dive bombers and the Yorktown Air Group strike arrived almost simultaneously over the Kido Butai, and changed the course of the Pacific War soon thereafter.
When Japanese planes roared low over Midway’s lagoon on 4 June 1942, TM2c Orville R. Mott, on board motor torpedo boat PT-24, manning one of the two twin-.50-caliber mounts, changed the inboard barrel of the starboard .50-caliber mount, wresting off the old, hot, barrel, and burning his hands while so doing, while firing the outboard gun simultaneously.
LCDR Maxwell F. Leslie, CO of VB-3, had once purportedly told a classmate at the USNA: “We can’t all be heroes but we can all try.” En route to the Japanese carrier force from Yorktown (CV-5) on 4 June 1942, Leslie and three of his pilots lost their 1,000-pound bombs to electrical release malfunctions, leaving 13 of the 17 VB-3 planes with ordnance. Although Leslie had no bomb to drop, he led the squadron into the dive, strafing and drawing fire.
As part of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s plans to meet the expected Japanese attack on Midway, Rear Admiral Robert H. English gave a dozen submarines the basic task of defending the atoll. One of those boats, Trout, had made three war patrols since the war began, and had an experienced commander, Lt. Comdr. Frank W. “Mike” Fenno, the oldest of all the submarine C.O.’s involved in the Battle of Midway. Fenno’s boat had already earned fame for bringing out the gold from the Philippine treasury. While detection by Japanese planes forced Trout down several times, limiting her effectiveness, the boat rescued two Japanese sailors on 9 June 1942, survivors of the sunken heavy cruiser Mikuma, who provided much useful intelligence material. Her retrieval of the enemy bluejackets proved the precursor of more involved submarine rescue efforts as the war progressed.
During the attack by Japanese carrier Hiryu’s Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 carrier attack planes on the afternoon of 4 June, Task Force 17, reinforced and formed around Yorktown (CV-5), put up heavy antiaircraft fire. CAPT Frank L. Lowe, commanding the heavy cruiser Pensacola (CA-24), wrote later that his ship, on the port side of the formation, continued firing her starboard 20-millimeter and 1.1-inch guns at the attacking planes “as they passed between the Yorktown and the Pensacola, the Yorktown guns doing the same; both ships accepting the danger to each other in an effort to stop the planes…”
His Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo afire, Capt. Herbert T. Merrill, USMC, bailed out and landed in the water. Although suffering from second degree burns, he reached the reef off Sand Island after two hours’ swimming. Motor torpedo boat PT-20 found Merrill, nearly blinded and clinging to the sharp coral; seeing the Marine obviously suffering from shock and burns, SM3c Edward J. Stewart dove into the water with a life ring at the end of a line, and, braving the surf breaking over the jagged coral, helped Merrill to safety.
Lt. Comdr. John W. “Spuds” Murphy, commanding the submarine Tambor, had been in command of that boat since the start of the war; Tambor had made two war patrols. During the mid watch on 5 June 1942, ignorant of the location of friendly forces, Murphy spotted four ships on the horizon that proved to be four Japanese heavy cruisers. When carrying out emergency evasive maneuvers, two of the enemy ships, Mikuma and Mogami, collided. Without firing a torpedo, Tambor had caused damage to two ships, one of which, Mikuma, was sunk by U.S. carrier-based planes on 6 June.
One of the oldest ships involved in the latter part of the Battle of Midway, the fleet tug Vireo (AT-144), commissioned as a minesweeper in 1919, doggedly towed the damaged carrier Yorktown (CV-5) toward Pearl Harbor on 5 June 1942. Underpowered for such a job and possessing only a small rudder, however, Vireo could only keep her unwieldy charge headed into the wind, a job complicated by a heavy sea making up. The next day, the Japanese submarine I-168 torpedoed Yorktown and Hammann (DD-412), sinking the latter. LT James C. Legg, Vireo’s commanding officer, a “mustang” who had enlisted in 1919, thinking the carrier’s sinking imminent, had the tow line severed and his ship double back to go alongside the carrier, picking up Hammann survivors en route. For 40 minutes, Vireo lay alongside Yorktown, taking a “terrific pounding” as she did so, bringing off the last of the salvagers in “seamanship of the highest order” that resulted in Legg receiving the Navy Cross.
Japanese Mitsubishi F1M2 Type 0 floatplanes from the seaplane carrier Chitose attacked the Consolidated PBY Catalina commanded by LT (j.g.) Robert S. Whitman about 340 miles west of Midway on 4 June. With Whitman and four other crewmen killed and one mortally wounded, and the plane set afire, AOM2c Philip L. Fulghum, one of the PBY’s waist gunners, continued to man his .50-caliber machine gun, and sent one of the attackers away trailing smoke. On his own initiative, with a crash imminent, Fulghum released the plane’s two 500-pound bombs. After the crash, AMM1c Virgil L. Marsh, despite the roaring flames, freed a rubber boat from the plane that AMM2c John C. Weeks repaired. Fulghum then assisted the wounded into the raft. They were rescued by another PBY on 6 June.
The new Gato-class boat Grouper, under Lt. Comdr. Claren E. “Duke” Duke, had yet to make a war patrol, and when attempting to get close enough to carry out an attack on the Japanese ships, found herself frequently under attack from aircraft. Diving to avoid one such attack on the afternoon of 5 June, Grouper plunged to an estimated 600 foot depth. The investigation for damage showed several electrical cables “pushed in a couple inches,” while cast iron plugs in the water manifolds for the generator coolers flew around the engine room “like machine gun bullets,” while water poured in through the stern tubes. The Mare Island Navy Yard product, however, proved tough, and survived the mishap, while “everyone had a few more gray hairs.”
Known to his USNA classmates as “The Naval Academy Peter Pan – The Little Boy Who Never Grew Up,” CDR Dixie Kiefer had brought Yorktown “to a high state of morale, efficiency, and readiness for battle.” On 4 June, Kiefer led a fire-fighting party in battling the blaze consuming the ship’s photographic lab although he had been unable to obtain a rescue breathing apparatus. Later that day, the energetic executive officer directed the abandonment of the ship, suffering severe burns to his hands helping to lower a man over the side. Later going over the side himself, his badly seared hands could not grasp the line firmly and he fell, caroming off the armor belt and suffering a compound foot and ankle fracture. Nevertheless, he helped push a life raft, laden with survivors, to a nearby destroyer. For his heroism at Midway on 4 June, Kiefer received the Navy Cross.
Lt. (j.g.) Cleo J. Dobson, assistant landing signal officer on board Enterprise (CV-6) and a former member of Scouting Squadron (VS) 6, flew one of the two SBDs dispatched from the carrier on 6 June on a photographic flight, with CP J.A. Mihalovic in the rear seat. He overflew the doomed Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma, pounded earlier that day by dive bombers from Enterprise and Hornet (CV-8), and later wrote in his diary: “Boy I sure would hate to be in the shoes of those fellows in the water. I shouldn’t feel so sorry for them because I might be in their shoes some day. I pray to God I’m not…”
While the submarines, with the exception of Nautilus, accomplished little during the Battle of Midway, the fault lay with the deployment, the boats being employed close in when perhaps stationing them further out, to catch the enemy on the way in, would have been wiser. Given the problems with U.S. submarine torpedoes, however, it will never be known whether or not the American boats would have achieved success or not. What is known is that the Submarine Force was continuing to learn lessons about the employment of the fleet boats, and the Battle of Midway was an essential part of the learning process.
One high explosive bomb, dropped by an Aichi D3A1 Type 99 carrier bomber from Japanese carrier Hiryu, struck home just abaft of Yorktown’s number two elevator, blowing a 12-foot hole in the flight deck and sending flying shards of metal that inflicted heavy casualties on the crews of nearby antiaircraft guns. Among the men at the four .50-caliber machine guns in battery number nine, GM3c Theodore B. Metcalf, although painfully wounded and unable to use one arm, repaired or replaced the damaged guns, and helped to remove the dead and wounded. He then stationed and instructed new men in the operation of the guns. For his meritorious service, GM3c Metcalf would receive the Silver Star.
Battle of Midway Summary References
The Japanese Story of the Battle of Midway, prepared by U.S. Naval Intelligence from captured Japanese documents. May 1947
The Course to Midway, A comprehensive overview created by Bill Spencer and hosted by the United States Navy’s website.
Battle of Midway, 4-7 June 1942, by the Naval Historical Center.
After Midway: The Fates of the U.S. and Japanese Warships by Bryan J. Dickerson